612. Zelazny Squared

Isle of the Dead, painting by Arnold Böcklin

Two of Roger Zelazny’s novels have been floating around in my interior conversations recently, Doorways in the Sand and Isle of the Dead.

A month or so ago I re-read Doorways in the Sand. It isn’t my favorite, ranking about half way down the thirty or so of Zelazny’s that I have read, but that still puts it into the top five percent of lifetime reads.

I was struck by how absolutely goofy its structure was. Every chapter starts in medias res, and then backtracks to fill it what the reader has missed. It is a common way of starting a fast moving novel, but in this case every chapter began with some kind of peril, then backtracked to fill in, extracted our hero from his trouble, and ended with things moving smoothly.

Weird — and I have to confess to a failure of imagination on my part. It took me forever to realize the trick Zelazny is playing.

He is taking us through the novel with serial style cliffhangers, but he is putting them at the beginning of each chapter instead of the end. It’s normally a technique to make a reader keep going so the writer doesn’t lose him, but Zelazny is forcing us to come to a full stop and start over (in terms of momentum) with each chapter.

It’s all inside out. And by the way, the machine that is central to the plot turns things inside out as well.

Zelazny likes to play games with us, and he isn’t afraid to skirt the edge of absurdity, assuming his readers will stay with him. The aliens who follow Doorways’s main character around are extremely not humanoid; to avoid being recognized, they wear disguises — a kangaroo, a wombat and a donkey, to name a few.

There aren’t very many writers who could get away with that without having me slam the book shut and move on.

Isle of the Dead came up when JM Williams asked for a book recommendation reciprocal to having cued me in to Small Gods. That lead me to re-read Isle for what would be the third or fourth time. What strikes me this time through, in view of discussions in recent posts, is Zelazny’s use of conversation.

Long before I was a writer, I read an advice-to-writers article titled “Multiply by Two,” which suggested that most fiction should start with two characters, because conversation is the easiest and reader-friendliest way of introducing a situation. I consistently ignore that advice — it doesn’t fit my personality — but I understand it.

You might think Zelazny is also ignoring that advice since Isle of the Dead opens with a long, philosophical monolog about Tokyo Bay. No, not really. This “monolog”, because of its loose, informal structure, is actually more of a conversation between author and reader. As in the following excerpt.

Of course everything in parentheses is an imagined reader’s response, which I have added to unfairly push my side of the argument about first person’s ability to snag the reader.

Life is a thing — if you’ll excuse a quick dab of philosophy (sure, go ahead) . . . that reminds me quite a bit of the beaches around Tokyo Bay . . . like Time . . . Tokyo Bay, on any given day, is likely to wash anything ashore . . . a bottle, with or without a note which you may or not be able to read, a human foetus, a piece of very smooth wood with a nail hole in it — maybe a piece of the True Cross (good, good) . . . it also used to be lousy with condoms (what?), limp, almost transparent testimonies to the instinct to continue the species (where are you going with this?) but not tonight (okay, now I get it) . . .

To be fair to Zelazny, the original, without all the ellipses and all my parenthetical comments, is much better. If you ever find the book and don’t have time to read it all, read the first three pages anyway.

This kind internal, self-referential conversation is storytelling within the storytelling. Zelazny excels at it. So does Louis L’amour, and Heinlein couldn’t write any other way.

Zelazny inhabits (I almost said owns) the shadowland between science fiction and fantasy. Trying to shoehorn his novels into either genre is futile. In Isle of the Dead, the protagonist and his opponent are a human and an alien, in purely SF fashion. However Sandow, the main character, is also a world shaper. In becoming one, he allied himself with one of the Named Gods of the Pei’an religion.

Gringrin, his enemy, is a Pei’an who didn’t quite make the cut as a world shaper. Why he didn’t is told two ways, one early and one late. Figuring out which reason is true it part of the mystery of the enemy’s motivation, and part of Zelazny’s skillful storytelling.

Are these Gods real, or psychological constructs that allow Pei’an worldshaping? Making a choice on that question would push Isle into SF or fantasy. Zelazny leaves it open, taking one side, then the other, leaving the question unanswered at the end. Meanwhile, the other 95% of the novel reads like pure SF. This is Zelazny’s basic MO.

Stripped to essentials, Isle of the Dead is the story of an enemy kidnapping loved ones, and the hero going to their rescue. Of course there is a twist at the end; Zelazny would never make it quite that simple. Nevertheless, the structure of Isle is extremely primitive. The novel’s charm lies in the telling. Given a choice between plot and style, I’ll choose style every time, which accounts for this being my favorite Zelazny stand-alone despite its somewhat disappointing ending.

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